Document of a Generation's Loss of the American Pastime
"I see great things in baseball. It is our game. It will repair our
losses and celebrate our triumphs."
"I believe in the church of baseball...the only church that feeds the soul
day-in-and-day-out is the church of baseball."
Annie Savoy from Bull Durham
Surprisingly, there are only a few great American movies about its pastime: John
Sayles' account of the Black Sox scandal and funeral song to lost innocence, Eight Men
Out; Gary Cooper channeling the spirit of Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees;
the more sentimental might select DeNiro's award-winning performance in Bang the Drum
Slowly, or perhaps Kevin Costner's mystical Field of Dreams. But I,
for one, choose the film that taught us how to wear garters over our jock straps: Bull
Who can forget Susan Sarandon's part-time junior college professor/Oedipal
mother-figure/delusional seductress, Annie Savoy, whose knowledge of the rhythms of Walt
Whitman extended to the rhythms of a batter's swing, among other things. Don't let
George Will's stiff physics lessons misguide you; baseball is a game of poetry. Its
irregular fields and open spaces lends it to the happenstance of life, yet it's a game of
precise motions that yields to grace--but it's also a game with mythological proportions
of failure and despair. Lifelong fans of the Chicago Cubs must feel a kindred pain
to that of Tantalus, who yearns for refreshing drink but the water always flows
away. Or the Fenway faithful, ritually inhabiting a haunted house in which the
spirits are trapped by a Green Monster. The mythology of the Red Sox' Ruthian
Curse, for Americana's sake, matches that of Orpheus's curse of his snake-bitten
wife. Orpheus commits the sin of looking back at what could have been, thus losing
it forever--just like the Sox, still punished for trading the most legendary of a legends'
So there's a perfect symmetry in Walt Whitman's words hovering over the best baseball
movie of all time. Ron Shelton's screenplay understands this sort of celebration
and despair. The film, I think, is about coping with mediocrity and facing the life
that turned out to be much less than we imagined. Not that there aren't singular
moments of brilliance, but Bull Durham is a hymn to the constant yearning for The
Greatest Moment of Our Life; we can never reclaim it, of course, but we're addicted to the
pursuit of it. Crash has his twenty-one days in The Show ("The stadiums are
cathedrals," he tells us.), and his three-day wet kisses, but above all, he believes
in the hanging curveball--that singular moment every ballplayer lives for. Likewise,
Annie ritually relives her deflowering, as a rose blooms again in the spring, under the
guise of "educating" a young rookie. The revelation is that sex, of the
lit-candles-around-the-bathtub variety, is something you settle into, more beautiful, more
patient, than that of the reckless youth. Crash and Annie engage in foreplay
vicariously through Nuke, trying to make him understand his talent, to appreciate his
coming moments of brilliance, because they know all too well that the rest of his life
will be defined by his pursuit of The Show. In this way, Bull Durham might
be termed The Virgin Ballplayers' Suicides--with baseball the perfect game to
capture the persistent longing, brief glories, and contemplative melancholy of the loss of
Compare that to Summer Catch, in which Freddie Prinze,
Jr. learns that the whole world revolves around him and his
desire to make-out with Maxim covergirls. This
is my first foray into the world of Freddie Prinze make-out
movies, so I'm only assuming that each of these cash machines
has the same plot. Here, Freddie is some poor schmo
with family problems and a dad who doesn't believe in him,
some dorky childhood buddies that stick around to idolize
him, some old hard-nose that whips him into shape, a willowy
make-out queen to make google eyes at, the parents of said
girlfriend that work diligently to see that Freddie doesn't
make-out with their daughter on a more permanent basis, a
cast of colorful teammates with their own one-note comedic
detail to exploit (you know, like the guy who enjoys "fat
chicks"), but above all, Freddie has Matthew Lillard.
The baseball theme is nothing more than a vehicle upon which
to ride the Freddie Movie Plot while constructing some lame
Varsity Blues-quality male bonding gags. And
an excuse for Freddie to spend five of the first seven minutes
of the movie riding around on a mower without his shirt.
Another thing that disturbs me about this movie is the speech. The young actors in
this movie speak in muffled tones in which the words get trapped between their lips and
teeth. I think it's a generational characteristic: young, cool,
"hip" guys all speak with this same inarticulate cadence, as if they're afraid
of the words coming out of their mouths. Upon further review, this might not be an
unfounded fear. Since Summer Catch is a She's All That revue of
the Kevin Costner baseball trilogy, the dialogue couldn't be more trite and
unbearable. Let's just compare these bits of wisdom from Summer Catch and Bull
"You have to allow yourself to
"You'll never make it to The Bigs with
fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy; you'll be classy. If you win twenty
in The Show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shoes. And then the press will
think you're 'colorful.'"
"If you want big rewards, you have to take
"Don't try to strike everybody out.
Strikeouts are boring, and besides that, they're fascist. Throw some
groundballs. They're more democratic."
"You've got a bag full of talent and a
head full of crap."
you're not going to hit me because you're starting to think
about it already...C'mon, Rook, show us that million dollar
arm because I've got a good idea about that five-cent head
"One moment it just arrives, and
"I want you to breathe through your
eyelids, like the Lava Lizards of the Galapagos Islands...I want you to be aware of the
chakra connection between your feet and your testicles."
"Sometimes you need a little sunshine to
break the ice."
"Just one more dying quail a week, and
you're in Yankee Stadium."
Let's finish with
this line, which has no equal in the literature of baseball:
"Baseball may be a religion full of magic,
cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time. But it's also a
As if Summer Catch isn't bad enough, it rips off the ballplayers-wearing-panties
gag, and girls read bad poetry to ballplayers in bed. Worse yet, Beverly D'Angelo
gets a Susan Sarandon/Mrs. Robinson cameo involving a virgin ballplayer and a
cucumber. I also bet that James Earl Jones would be offended to know that the
ballplayers, instead of renting an hourly-rate hotel room, just go ahead and screw at the
ballfield, preferably on the bullpen mound. Which sounds uncomfortable, but it's
affordable, and the wake-up call is more reliable: the sprinklers come on in the
morning, prompting Freddie to scurry around the outfield wearing Brittany Murphy's
panties. We see a lot of Freddie shirtless, really--especially mowing the grass,
which he does with considerably less skill than Forrest Gump. In addition to all
this splendor ******Spoiler Alert****** Summer Catch contains the worst ending in
baseball movie history. Freddie has a no-hitter going with one out in the
ninth--which Hank Aaron is watching!--but he takes himself out of the game to
chase down his anonymous Maxim covergirl so they can make-out before she decides
not to get on the plane. That, my loyal readers, is blasphemy committed against the
church of baseball, and I think Annie Savoy would agree.
So as the newest entry into the baseball/sex comedy genre, Summer Catch just
doesn't grasp the metaphysical beauty of the game. That's too bad: I'm afraid
that Summer Catch is also indicative of its target audience's understanding and
appreciation of the game. It's a game foreign to our youth's sensibilities.
Baseball mandates contemplative and scrupulous care in its details; its humbling rate of
failure--even the most successful hitters fail seventy-percent of the time--requires more
modesty, and perhaps shame, than we are used to. Even with success, there is rarely
any dancing or spiking or general showboating--a gentle jog around the bases will
do. These are the lessons baseball used to teach us, and I find myself
increasingly downtrodden by our youth's deficiency in Whitman's "our game."
And this in an especially trying year for baseball: Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr.
will both retire, heroes who now seem like vinyl records in a compact disc store. I
remember a time when a ballplayer defined a community--once in Jamaica, I told a native
that I was from near Kansas City, and he replied, "Oh, you mean George
Brett?" That sort of loyalty, that sort of character, as in the days when a
factory would not flee the town that fed it, have been replaced by A-Rods and Griffeys who
relocate themselves with the ease of a dotcom switching domain names. I'm sure that
Kirby Puckett and Robin Yount remained loyal to their teams for personal reasons, but I'll
bet that a sense of loyalty, of obligation, of a sense of community larger than
themselves, was a part of that decision also. So as I watch the Boston Red Sox and
Minnesota Twins fade from pennant contention, I fear another bland, brand-name
Steinbrenner/Turner World Series.
Could Peter O'Malley have warned us of a global future of
loosened roots and unrepaid loyalty? Whitman is right:
Baseball is our poetic register, and so I've become whimsical
for the days of tee-ball and George Brett and when baseball
movies were beautiful. Heck, even at ten-years-old we
knew that if there was a runner on first and a 2-1 count,
you should try to put the ball on the ground to right side
to execute a hit-and-run. Those were the Bull Durham
days. Now the game is all long balls and contract
holdouts and missed cut-offs. No wonder young people
don't love baseball. But still, their lack of passion
for the game is depressing--the same emotion I felt walking
out of Summer Catch.